Cambodia history is a tortuous path from the once most powerful empire in Southeast Asia, life under colonial ambition, survival of an atrocious regime and emergence as a young and vibrant Country.
The first vestiges of human presence in Cambodia date back 6,000 years and mark the starting point of Cambodian pre-history. By the first century AD trade routes between China and India had developed and groups of settlers appeared in the Mekong Delta. Chinese records mention the Funan Kingdom as one of the earliest trading settlements and finds have been made of Roman coins confirming the establishment of a staging post on important trade routes between West and East. Funan was strongly influenced by Indian religious and social ideas and is known as the first precursor of the Khmer empire. The second predecessor would be the Chenla Kingdom in the 6th century that, according to Chinese records, gained control over Funan and moved inland.
The period that follows is known as the golden age of Cambodia history. Angkor history starts in 802 AD with King Jayavarman II proclaiming itself the first God king at a ceremony on the Kulen Hills to the North of Tonle Sap. The Angkor era saw the empire ruling over vast territories and a cultural and architectural supremacy over its neighbors that reached its zenith during Suryavarman's construction of Angkor Wat near the modern site of Siem Reap and then the reign of King Jayavarman VII. After his death the empire started to decline and Angkor was mysteriously abandoned in 1431.
Post Angkor history is known as the dark ages due to lack of records and the Kingdom became fought over between its two neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, being controlled by either one or the other.
Modern Cambodia History
To protect the country from its neighbors, King Norodom signed an agreement with the French to establish a protectorate in 1863. Cambodia became a French colony and part of French Indochina in 1887. Cambodia was largely neglected; the French collected taxes but brought few improvements to the country. WWII brought the next chapter in Cambodia history as control over Indochina shifted to Japanese hands. After the war the French tried to regain control over the region but King Norodom launched a crusade for independence that resulted in French withdrawal in 1953.
Khmer people were one the first inhabitants of Southeast Asia. The oldest vestiges of Pre Historic Cambodia (stone made tools) were found in the cave of Laan Spean in Battambang and evidence that the cave was inhabited 6,000 years ago. Little is known about this period although it is commonly accepted that prehistoric men lived in caves, had basic skills such as the cultivation of rice or the domestication of animals and practiced animism, worshipping both the spirits of the land and their ancestors. Other pre-historic sites have been found in Cambodia, such as Samrong Sen in central Cambodia which was occupied in the 1500 B.C or Bas- Plateau in Kampong Chang, occupied in the 2nd century BC.
This archaeological evidence shows that a Neolithic culture inhabited parts of Cambodia in the 1st and 2nd millennia B.C, although scholars disagree as to whether they migrated from southern China or from India. By the first century C.E there were relatively stable, organized societies along the coast and Mekong river delta, and they were far superior than the primitive societies. They worked metals Such as iron and bronze and possessed navigation knowledge. Recently, circular earthworks dating to Cambodia's Neolithic era have been found.
Fun an Kingdom
The Funan Kingdom was a pre-angkorian civilization located in the Mekong delta of south Cambodia and South Vietnam. The development of new trade routes between China and Indian on the first century AD encouraged the appearance of settlers in the area and according to Chinese records; one of the first settlements was Funan. Archaeological evidence found at Oc-Eo (in Vietnam) such as roman coins, Indian jewelry and Buddhist religious objects, and shows that the Kingdom of Funan was a powerful trading state. Other archaeological discovery such as a large canal system linking various settlements within the Kingdom reveals a highly organized society with a high population density and advanced technology. The origins of the inhabitants of the Funan Kingdom are much disputed. The most accepted theory relates that they were a tribe that spoke a tongue of the Mon Khmer family languages, thus creating a linguistic link with the Cambodians. Also, Chinese records relate the origin of the Funan people using the same origin myth that has been used in Khmer folklore to explain the origins of the Khmer: A foreign Indian prince arrives by sea to an island where the Naga Kings live and meets the daughter of the Naga king. He marries her with the blessing of her father, who drinks the sea around the island and builds a capital for them. The Funan Kingdom was strongly influenced by Indian culture and had adopted many elements of the Indian tradition such as the use of the Sanskrit language in the high courts, the Buddhist and Hindu religions, astronomy, legal system and literature. The Kingdom reached its power peak under the reign of King Fan Shih-man in the early third century, occupying present Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and part of Malaysia. However, by the 6th century A.D the stability of Funan was put in jeopardy by civil wars and the Kingdom of Chenla gained control over Funan, starting another phase of Cambodian history.
The political events of the last 5 years had prepared the ground for the Khmer Rouge victory in 1975: the excessive corruption and incompetence of Lon Nol's government, the intermittent USA bombing in Cambodia during 1969-73 that killed around 150,000 peasants, the American and South Vietnamese invasion of Southeastern Cambodia that drove the North Vietnamese troops deeper into the country and the support showed by Sihanouk to the Khmer Rouge led many Cambodian's to believe that they would be better off under the Pol Pot led party. At the beginning the Khmer Rouge had been dependant of their Vietnamese allies, but as they grew stronger and gained support in the countryside, they became more independent and their ideological line took a different approach: they pursued an indigenous communism based in the agrarian Chinese Cultural Revolution (as opposed to the more Soviet style communism followed by the Vietnamese), supported by strong nationalist feelings. Despite their earlier collaboration Cambodian communism was embedded in strong anti-Vietnamese feelings.
In 1975, after a long civil war against Lon Nol's army, the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and was greeted by effusive crowds that believed the end of the war and hardship would finally be over. Nothing further from reality, the new regime (Democratic Kampuchea) would be the most brutal in Cambodian history. Next day the Khmer Rouge started evacuating all the cities and relocating all their citizens to the country side. Cambodia was reinvented into a radical agrarian utopia: all foreign influences, capitalism, western culture, religion and modern life were abolished. Embassies were closed, foreign expelled, newspapers, radio and television stations were closed, health care and education eliminated, money and markets banned. Children were removed from their parental guard and put in communal camps. Cambodia was taken back to "year zero".
The Khmer Rouge killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians in a four year period. Deadly purges were conducted to "purify" the society. At the beginning they were aimed at the elements of the "old society": teachers, intellectuals, doctors, lawyers, wealthy people, Buddhist monks, police, former government officials and the educated. Towards 1967-68 the party became obsessed with the idea of enemies infiltrating into the party ranks and the bloody purges were carried out against party cadres.
Malnutrition and disease claimed a big number of deaths. The regions were given unrealistic quotas of rice that have to be sent to Phnom Penh and more often than not people would be left with no food in order to meet the quotas. Starvation along with lack of medical care (there were no trained people and no medicines) proved fatal, and by 1977 the country could not sustain itself due to the high percentage of death. However, delusions of grandeur of the regime led them to raid Vietnamese villages in order to gain control of the Mekong delta.
The poorly equipped Khmer troops were not match for the Vietnamese forces, and the results were catastrophic. Pol Pot responded with more purges within his party members and a number of them escaped to Vietnam. Amongst them was Heng Samrin, a military whom the Vietnamese chose to replace Pol Pot, who was becoming a nuisance for them. In 1979 dissident Cambodians assisted by around 90,000 Vietnamese soldiers invaded Cambodia and Pol Pot's regime fled to neighboring Thailand. Despite the anti-Vietnamese feelings of Cambodians, Vietnamese occupation was eagerly welcomed.
Modern history: from 1993 to present day
In 1993, the first democratic elections since the Khmer Rouge regime and the Vietnam occupation took place in Cambodia under the supervision of the UN. Over 4 million Cambodians voted and Funcinpec party (headed by prince Ranariddh) won the elections with 58 seats, closely followed by Hun Sen's Cambodian's People Party (CPP). Funcinpec entered into a coalition with the other participating parties creating a 120 member assembly that drafted and approved the constitution. Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen became First and Second Prime Ministers. The government slowly started the process of rebuilding the country.
In 1997 factional fighting between Funcinpec supporters of Prince Norodon Ranariddh and CPP's supporters of Hun Sen broke out, leaving a bloody confrontation in Phnom Penh. Prince Ranariddh's party was accused of plotting with Khmer Rouge leaders to overthrow the CPP from power, and Hun Sen emerged as the strong man (as he was declared by the local media) that would bring stability to Cambodia.
In the 1998 National Assembly elections the CPP received 41% of the votes, Funcinpec %32 and Sam Rainsy Party 13%. The CPP and Funcinpec parties formed a coalition government with Hun Sen as Prime Minister. In 2004, due to health problems, King Sihanouk abdicated the throne after a long active life in Cambodian politics. The Royal Council of the Throne, body responsible for electing the successor to the throne, selected Prince Norodom Sihamoni as the new King and he is the monarch in the present day.